MLA 2023: Twenty-First-Century Forms

For this year’s Modern Language Association Convention, to be held January 5–8, 2023 in San Francisco, California, I organized and will be speaking on a roundtable on Twenty-First-Century Forms, along with Daniel Burns, Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth, Kathryn Harlan-Gran, Kevin Pyon, and Elizabeth Sotelo. I have included the information about the panel and, below that, full abstracts from each speaker.

197. Twenty-First-Century Forms

Friday, January 6, 2023, 8:30–9:45 a.m. (PST)

If one might argue that the novel and lyric poem have become residual forms, what literary forms are emerging in contemporaneity? Panelists explore emergent literary forms of the twenty-first century and their relationship with, instantiation in, or remediation by other (digital) media: film, documentary, social media, publishing platforms, transmedia, autotheory, and other hybrid narrative and poetic forms.

Dan Burns (Elon University)
Bradley J. Fest (Hartwick College)
Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth (The University of Texas at Austin)
Kathryn Harlan-Gran (Cornell University)
Kevin Pyon (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)
Elizabeth Sotelo (University of Oregon)

Bradley Fest (Hartwick College)

Panel Abstract: Twenty-First-Century Forms

Drawing upon Raymond Williams’s theory of cultural forms, critics such as Jonathan Arac have argued that previously dominant forms such as the novel and lyric poem have become residual (though certainly not trivial). If we grant this residuality, and consider film, television, and new media among today’s dominant forms, what particularly literary forms are emerging and what is their role in twenty-first-century imaginaries? As part of a larger project begun at MLA 2021 (with the goal of an edited collection or special issue), this roundtable continues exploring emergent literary forms and their relationship with, instantiation in, or remediation by other media. With the material transformations wrought by networked digital media, smartphones, new distribution methods, and readily available video capture, literary artifacts are manifesting in a variety of forms and media beyond traditional print ones. This panel will investigate what happens when literature intersects with film, theory, social media, publishing platforms, documentary, and other new, hybrid, or hyperarchival forms. Though studies in new media and electronic literature have paved the way toward an understanding of emergent literary forms, too often such scholarship has been cordoned off (in both directions) from the study of more traditional forms—novels and poems. This panel seeks to broaden our understanding of the literary and of form in order to ask (once again): What new forms has literary making produced in the twenty-first century?

Dan Burns, “Too Big to Fail: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and the Art of Excess in the Age of Inclusion”

In the first book-length academic study of literary maximalism, The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction (1989), Tom LeClair defends his focus on a predominantly white, male, upper-middle class cohort with the argument that writers from marginalized backgrounds, having been “deprived of full participation in American life,” inevitably lack the enlarged vision a totalizing narrative demands. LeClair would reiterate this position a decade later in a negative review of Gayl Jones’s expansive US-Mexico border epic Mosquito (1999)—a dissent driven not by objections to the novel’s female heroine-narrator or multicultural themes, but rather by what he characterizes as the novel’s “self-promoting” hubris and misguided experimentality. Such qualities, which The Art of Excess unironically champions in lengthy chapters devoted to works by Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, John Barth, Joseph Heller, Robert Coover, and Joseph McElroy, highlight two seemingly irreconcilable claims. On the one hand, twentieth-century genre theories that anatomize aesthetic size (la novela totalizadora, encyclopedic narrative, the meganovel, and modern epic, among others) depend on highly specialized, often exclusionary criteria for their critical force. On the other, the very attempt at “mastering” national identity in a panoramic aesthetic form analogous to social, political, and cultural life is generally met with charges of arrogance and intellectual vanity. These contradictory pressures have prompted contemporary scholars of long-form fiction to ask what—in LeClair’s own words—a properly “multiethnic, multiracial, multiclass, and [equitably] gender[ed]” maximalist authorship might look like given the severely circumscribed bounds of his “systems novel” framework.

Dan Burns’s paper responds to this paradox by examining both classic (Mendelson, Karl, Clark, and Moretti) and contemporary (Ercolino, Levey, Barrenechea, Greif, and Letzler) maximalist criticism in a comparative case study on the critical and commercial fortunes of Hanya Yanagihara’s recent bestselling meganovel, A Little Life (2015). Historicizing the new formal category initiated by James Wood’s turn-of-the-century “hysterical realist” coinage as a fundamentally gendered critical commonplace, Burns explores the extent to which the mixed reception histories that regularly greeted late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century megatexts by authors such as Marguerite Young, Leslie Marmon Silko, Zadie Smith, and Helen DeWitt alternately anticipate and authorize contemporary opposition to Yanagihara’s project. From this survey, Burns argues that the existing critical orthodoxy surrounding big, ambitious novels written by women is designed to deliberately fail its subjects—an argument that confirms conclusions drawn by Cambridge History of American Literature editor Wendy Steiner, who once cautioned in a field overview of postmodern fiction that totalizing theories of this kind only “reduce art to a single . . . peculiarly mechanistic . . . function and aim, and thus to an extremely narrow range of possibilities.”

Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth
, “Lyric Time and the Virtual Archive of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 Netflix adaptation of Iain Reid’s debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, creates an intertextual, virtual archive that highlights the potential of digital filmmaking and speaks to the overlooked parallels between cinematic and lyric time. In Kaufman’s I’m Thinking, a young woman visiting her new boyfriend’s parents discovers his childhood bedroom filled with books like William Wordsworth’s Collected Poems and Pauline Kael’s For Keeps, but also DVDs with oddly personal titles like, Lost/Abandoned Friendships and Futile Efforts at Success. Yet, a collection of poetry—Rotten Perfect Mouth by the poet Eva H.D.—is the strangest of these texts. That is, because in its pages, we find “Bonedog,” the same poem that the young woman powerfully recites earlier in the film as her own composition. Many viewers of Kaufman’s film who obtained a copy of the poetry collection featured on-screen also made a discovery: “Bonedog” was not in Rotten Perfect Mouth. Using an analysis of the film’s form, its reception as a Netflix production, as well as recent theories of cinematic and lyric temporality, digital filmmaking, and the virtual poem, Bursztajn-Illingworth proposes that I’m Thinking employs virtual intertexts to create a palimpsestic, lyric temporality and posits adaptation as a virtual archive, resonant with the database as a twenty-first century form. Kaufman transforms Reid’s story from a materially embedded narrative, a novel framed as suicide note, into a lyric palimpsest of cinema’s sister arts, which Kaufman recasts as the virtual archive of a lonesome mind extinguishing in death.

Bradley J. Fest, “Hyperarchival Poetics”

Drawing upon theories of the long poem in the United States and his other work on massive twenty-first-century forms, Fest’s paper will sketch a theory of hyperarchival poetics and suggest how we might understand contemporary poiesis as positioned between the new forms of textual hyperaccumulation and of textual destruction that have arisen in the digital age.

Kathryn Harlan-Gran, “Familiar Principles, Emergent Forms: How New Media Fiction Renovates Notions of Authorship, Archive, and Literary Community”

Drawing on fiction from the social media platform Reddit and from the collectively authored fiction forum Secure, Contain, Protect (SCP), Kathryn Harlan-Gran argues that recent digital authorship productively illuminates intersections between historical literary patterns and those that continue to emerge from cyberspace. Specifically, she considers the role of amateur authorship, feelings of literary community and belonging, and constructions of canon and archive within a vast, ephemeral digital architecture. On Reddit, for example, fiction writing forums such as r/writingprompts and r/nosleep reflect the inheritance of historical trends in writing and publication, such as serial literature, anonymity and pseudonymity, and amateur production. Simultaneously, however, the unique qualities of digital self-publication, such as public engagement, anonymous or automated moderation, and the rapid turnover of literary trend cycles, highlight distinctive concerns surrounding contemporary new media authorship. Similarly, the Secure, Contain, Protect (SCP) Foundation, a fictional organization dedicated to cataloguing supernatural anomalies and securing them away from the public eye, offers an example of what collective authorship and creative community can look like within a hub of digital curation. In this archive, thousands of writers and hundreds of thousands of readers contribute to a contingent, ever-evolving canon. Harlan-Gran engages the multi-genre, multi-form, multi-author scope of this project to elaborate contemporary concepts of canonicity and archive in relation to thousands of contributing minds. Ultimately, she asserts that these examples emphasize how new forms engage longstanding literary traditions while navigating the emerging pitfalls and affordances of reading and writing in digital landscapes, among virtual communities.

Kevin Pyon, “A Living Archive of the Self: or, the Autotheory of Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson”

Following the publication and reception of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), the genre of “autotheory” has emerged as a distinctly twenty-first-century literary and critical form. In particular, critics have seen autotheory’s blending of the ordinary conventions of autobiography (i.e., the focus on a coherent self) with the poststructuralist/postmodern dictates of critical theory (i.e., the deconstruction of a coherent self) as a response by authors such as Nelson to our contemporary neoliberal moment marked by possessive individualism and the “death of theory.” As such, autotheoretical texts like The Argonauts or Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) have been analyzed for their literary and lyrical experiments with imagining the self as plural or performative and, in turn, how these experiments signify a revival or reappropriation of critical theory outside of the walls of academia.

In this paper, Kevin Pyon considers another form of autotheory within the scholarly field of Black studies. More specifically, he explores how the autotheoretical works of Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson represent a sharp break with the genre’s current focus on the performativity or plurality of the self. In Lose Your Mother (2006), Hartman reflects on her experiences abroad in Africa in order to express how her own family history is indelibly marked by the “afterlife” of slavery’s destruction of the enslaved’s indigenous kinships; similarly, in Afropessimism (2020), Wilderson composes a discontinuous collection of vignettes from his life to illustrate how Blackness continues to be “coterminous” with Slaveness even after the institutional end of slavery. Both Hartman and Wilderson approach their autobiographical selves as living archives for revealing the history and legacy of racial slavery.

Elizabeth Sotelo, ““Politics of the Unrepresented and the Unspoken in Selected Chronicles of Gabriela Wiener”

The aim of Elizabeth Sotelo’s talk is the study of twenty-first-century texts “Guru & Family,” “Trans,” “Impossible Interview with my Abuser,” and “In the Prison of Your Skin,” all part of the book Sexographies (2008) written by Gabriela Wiener. The texts are narrated from a nonfictional standpoint and focus on the lives of female individuals from Peru and their experiences concerning polygamous marriage, transgender immigrants, physical abuse, and men’s jail. Although scholarly studies in her book center on how sex is a form of resistance, satisfaction, and liberation, they have neglected to identify the desire for autonomy and its achievement as a form of freedom. Such desire is shared by the female protagonists of the selected texts, and its unfolding is manifested through their own will, decisions, and narrations. The analysis of this type of desire also sheds light on the social context of each woman and the unsettling effects surrounding them. Within this framework, Sotelo draws from the epistemic decolonization concept of Aníbal Quijano, the decolonial feminist approach of María Lugones, and the politics of literature conceptualized by Jacques Rancière to understand how the selected chronicles render epistemic-feminist proposals to decolonize through the presence and realization of the desire for autonomy.

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